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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

4C20 Presentation: Kicking in Carnal Commonplaces

Hello everyone and welcome to Rhetorical Roundhouse, your home for rhetoric, martial arts studies, and all things Tae Kwon Do. Today I'm finally sharing my presentation that I was scheduled to give at this years Conference for College Composition and Communication (4Cs) in Milwaukee as part of the Martial Arts Special Interest Group panel.

I've embedded a video presentation below and there is a full transcript at the bottom of this post for easier reading. Also, at the end of the presentation I offer some ways that the theoretical concept of "embodied topoi" can be used to help writing students as well as instructors. For a full downloadable list of each, see below the video player.

For some ways to think about how embodied topoi might be useful to craft exercises for writing students, consider the examples on this handout.

For ways to think about becoming a more mindful or contemplative instructor, consider this handout I prepared for ATTW in 2019 and utilized as part of an instructor orientation last year. Many of the examples listed in this document were generated by instructors at this orientation session. Both documents are just starting points, however, and I encourage you to customize as much or as little as you'd like.

Thanks so much for checking out this presentation. If you like this content, be sure to look at the Rhetorical Roundhouse Youtube page for more conference videos, the Pumsae Poetry series, and training material for practitioners.

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Transcript below.


Hello everyone and thank you for coming out today to listen to our panel’s presentation of Complex Commonplaces and Bodily Composition. My name is Spencer Bennington and my presentation today is called “Kicking in Carnal Commonplaces: Embodied Topoi in Tae Kwon Do practice.” I’m very sorry that I could not be here physically with you today, but I do hope that you enjoy this video synopsis of research that will appear in my dissertation. For more scholarship connecting writing pedagogy and martial arts or if you’d like to contact me after the presentation with questions, please visit

My main focus today is to advance the theory of “embodied topoi” a term I coined when discussing the process by which Tae kwon Do practitioners incorporate cultural arguments into a material, carnal, or performed identity, one which engages in a recursive relationship between the individual, group, and/or community. In order to fully understand this idea and its significance to writing instruction, however, it's important first to understand a few key terms--chief among them is Aristotle’s use of the word topoi, one of the ideas that themes this entire conference. Before we get to that one though, let’s tackle some of the less convoluted concepts.

First, let's start with Taekwondo. Tae Kwon Do is a Korean martial art first named in 1955. Technically speaking, its origins lie in Shotokan Karate, a Japanese martial art. But, because of various ethnic and political tensions, much boundary work has been done in the past seventy years to distinguish Taekwondo as something unique. This is evident now more than ever when watching many of the high-flying acrobatic kicks Taekwondo masters continue to develop and perfect. Despite it developing its own unique identity, however, Tae Kwon do is still a martial art and, like all martial arts, it operates as a rhetorical institution. This means that on some basic level, authorized Tae Kwon Do organizations are motivated to produce particular kinds of rhetorical citizens through disciplining and training. One of the fundamental and most important ways organizations like the World Taekwondo Federation (WT) accomplish this goal is through the regulation of pumsae practice as an assessment measure for what defines a black belt. Pumsae, or forms practice, is just one of the many shared activities that unites multiple schools of Tae Kwon Do practitioners. Unlike sparring, a more sport-oriented component of Taekwondo popularized by its appearance in the 2000 Olympics, or even breaking, a test of strength, speed, agility, and accuracy, pumsae requires nothing from the practitioner but adequate space and focus. That’s because pumsae practice is simply a choreographed set of blocks, strikes, and stances taught as markers of a student’s progression toward black belt. Specifically, the set of eight taegeuk pumsae are the one common curricular component among all black belts recognized by the Kukkiwon (the headquarters for the WT). But why is pumsae the one aspect of Taekwondo designated as the one common marker for student success? In part, it’s because each form is not only a set a of physical techniques, but an embodiment of one of eight specific commonplace principles to be incorporated into a practitioner's identity, principles that, when adopted, produce a body that accurately reflects the institutional goals and cultural beliefs of Taekwondo. I think of the concepts embedded in pumsae as a kind of topoi, starting points for argument. But to fully understand all the trickiness of what it could mean to call these eight concepts “Daoist topoi” it's worth looking at the ways the term has been understood, appropriated, debated, and (re)invented over the years.

Aristotle described the concept at length, but failed to actually provide a clear definition of what exactly constitutes a topos, a fact that is particularly troubling given that the word can translate to mean “topic,” “theme,” or “commonplace.” Thomas Conley states that there “is a good deal of scholarly disagreement about just what a topos is and how it functions” (1994, 15). Nevertheless, the terms topos and topoi continue to be employed and debated in a variety of academic arenas.

What we can infer from Aristotle is that topoi are fundamental ways of forming logical inquiry, questions that can aid in the construction of a dialectic, or a type of reasoning “from opinions that are generally accepted” (Aristotle, Topics, 1.1). This notion of public opinion or commonly held cultural belief, a concept Aristotle would name endoxa, is an important component for the understanding of topoi and how they function. In contrast to Plato and his belief that doxa (individual opinion) was the starting point for Truth, Aristotle saw the social connections between people’s commonly held beliefs as more important places to leverage arguments (Hoffe and Salazar 2003, p, 35-42). In other words, the points upon which members of a community agree and disagree are more fundamentally responsible for constituting a social “truth” than any one idea held by an individual, no matter how virtuous, scientifically sound, or reasonable. This aligns with White’s notion of rhetoric as “constitutive,” a force which facilitates argument by allowing participants to see the ways in which they’re dis/connected from one another (Sloane 2001, 616). Therefore, Aristotle’s 28 lines of argument, his original list of topoi, function as “headings” which group together enthymemes shared by communities and are, according to D’Angelo’s (2017) reading “the ‘elements’ out of which enthymemes are constructed” (202). Topoi can produce salient arguments because they operate as a base upon which a cultural superstructure of belief can take shape.

Other scholars similarly highlight the importance of endoxa when considering the role of topoi as Aristotle conceived them. Perhaps one of the cleanest definitions of this kind comes from Donovan Ochs who describes the formal topics simply as “relationships” (1969). Considering the example of Aristotle’s formal topic of “opposites,” Ochs describes how the topos functions not only to form a line of reasoning, but to establish a connective tissue between endoxa and argument.

Figure 5: Ochs’ illustration of Aristotle’s “opposites” topos.

The above example works to create an argument by providing the opposite of each claim’s component parts and applying that scheme to a new topic. More importantly, however, each premise reveals a culturally accepted truth or an enthymeme as unstated, agreed upon premise (temperance being aligned with goodness). Cicero’s Topica, a later interpretation of Aristotle's Topics, offers a similar focus on the topos as a type of “container” one which collects a “reasoning process” or “a topical relationship” (Ochs 1982 p. 106-7). In this way, again, a topos demarcates what is shared between members of a particular community in terms of belief and, therefore, argument.

According to D’Angelo (2017), Boethius is one of the first to state this idea explicitly in Differentiis Topicis by relating these “lines of reasoning” to maximal propositions (202). In philosophy, a “proposition” is any statement regarding truth or falsity. A “maximal” proposition, then, is one such statement of the utmost truth or falsity. Figure 6 offers an example of such maximal propositions that had, before this time, merely operated implicitly as the driving force of Aristotle’s 28 and Cicero’s 18 topoi.

Figure 6: Boethius explicitly states a maximal proposition guiding a line of argument

In the above progression, Boethius demonstrates how one might ask a question in such a way as to engage with the cultural beliefs about a topos, in this case “justice.” He then provides a logical syllogism fueled by cultural beliefs (not all societies would agree that justice is a virtue for example) which leads to a general statement of belief, his maximal proposition. While it’s hard to disagree with the proposition that the “species' ' will contain similar traits to the genus, it’s important to note that this proposition was derived from more highly debatable premises and evidence. What this means is that if different cultures employ different topoi, or have different values regarding similar topoi (like justice) then other maximal propositions, other highly regarded truth statements, are likely to appear. Take, for example, the kind of Eastern koans or other cryptic statements that encourage meditation, even the ones featured in popular media like the 1970’s hit television series Kung Fu. In the pilot episode, Caine (David Carradine) asks his Master Kan (Philip Ahn) about whether or not he should ever “seek victory in contention.” By Western standards, victory could very well be seen as virtuous in the way Boethius describes justice. Therefore, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a syllogism suggesting that victory is advantageous no matter the route. But Master Kan does not answer from this cultural perspective. Instead he replies “We know that where there is no contention, there is neither defeat nor victory. The supple willow does not contend against the storm, yet it survives' ' (Kung Fu). Master Kan’s answer illustrates a different topos, that of “survival” in place of victory. It’s not hard to see that his cultural beliefs align victory and contention with excessive force, ill-intentions, and certainly not virtue whereas survival through harmonious balance is something laudable. This example merely serves to show how cultural beliefs or endoxa shape not only the way people think about topoi but dictate the topoi that they commonly select in making arguments. Similarly, if these topoi change, the kinds of propositions or truth statements derived from them will change dramatically as well.

While the concept of topoi is stable after the Classical period, the theory surrounding it changed dramatically in the 20th and 21st century. Miller (2008), for instance, questions the role of topoi in rhetorical invention, something my analysis also considers when discussing the taegeuk pumsae as starting points for active meditation. She claims that topoi “aid in pattern recognition” and, according to Olson (2010), help “ground visions for the future on images of the past” (303). This indicates that topoi work to provide a kind of argumentative foundation for rhetoricians and, in my own study, martial artists, who seek new knowledge by first exploring well-trodden paths, exemplifying what Miller refers to as the “generative power of the familiar” (2008, 134). Tae Kwon Do forms ask practitioners to generate these new ideas from the physical familiar, the ritual performance. In this sense, pumsae can be understood more in terms of Cintron’s topoi as “storehouses of social energy” (2010). This phrase connects back, to Aristotle’s definition of energia as lively, physical force, a concept that Cintron argues is necessary in understanding the ability of topoi to “actualize” things or make them “appear to be engaged in activity” (101). If this is the case, then topois work not only to establish relationships (as Aristotle and Cicero demonstrated), to make explicitly visible maximal propositions or cultural enthymemes (as Boethius showed), or even to offer new ways of generating ideas and arguments (like Miller contests), but to offer a palpable, living, moving, dynamic proof that cultural arguments and their underlying premises constitute embodied realities and material consequences.

Topoi have been previously identified as can be “embodiable” in other, perhaps more temporary ways as Olson (2010) describes in a study of “Strategic Indigeneity” in Ecuadorian politics. For Olson, a topos can be embodied when a speaker or writer claims to be a corporeal representation of the underlying cultural argument (in this case, writers identifying as indigenous Ecuadorians) for the purpose of adding rhetorical force to an argument and, quite literally, giving life to dialectic in terms of Cintron’s reading of energia. Olson’s study examines ways in which writers can perform an identity through text, but, in this case, the identity in question also happened to be an important commonplace argument: who counts as a native and what should become of them? Of course, writing from the perspective of an indigenous person and giving a life, a sense of energy, and a body to such a topos provides the speaker with credibility, but this identity performance represents more than just an effective appeal. Olson describes such performances in terms of Diana Taylor’s definition, suggesting they serve to “transmit ‘social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated … behavior,’” (Taylor 2003, quoted in Olson 2010). This “reiterated behavior” connects Miller’s (2008) belief in topoi as a “familiar” as well as Cintron’s (2010) understanding of their “social energy” by describing the physical ways in which such performances can generate new knowledge. Understanding topoi as having the potential for this kind of performance leads me to share with Olson the claim “that commonplaces can be activated within bodies” (p. 303). To that I would add that, when activated, these topoi no longer exclusively connect premises and enthymemes, but individuals to groups and larger communities with shared systems of belief.

My study, then, examines how an athletic institution like the World Taekwondo Federation can discipline practitioners around the world to adopt and embody similar topoi through pumsae practice. This analysis has roots in Debra Hawhee’s (2004) examination of athletic bodies and Ancient Greek habit practices as reflective and generative of the Greek rhetorical tradition. After reading Bodily Arts I had one question: If Hawhee can make such a compelling argument about the rhetorical bodies of athletes in Ancient Greece, couldn’t scholars look at other cultures with different rhetorical traditions and see how those bodies shaped and were shaped by rhetoric? This question led me to pursue the scholarship of Xing Lu (1998) and Steven Combs (2006) to better understand the Ancient Chinese rhetorical traditions, specifically those rooted in Daoism. From this point it became clear that the forms I had been practicing for years were part of a much deeper cultural lineage than Taekwondo’s 1955 origin story would have me believe. This is because each of the eight forms required to test for a black belt corresponded to eight core philosophical principles known as the Bagua in Chinese and Palgwe in Korean first described in the Ancient Chinese classic I-Ching nearly 3000 years ago. Not only that, but the practice of these forms was frequently described as a type of “moving meditation” one that would help the martial artist apply the principle inherent in the form to their own life and thus change the way they behave in the world. In other words, these forms themselves, housed cultural arguments, ones that were to be given liveliness through bodily performance, ones that created common ground among martial artists across time and space, and ones that were to be actualized in the changing identity of practitioners--these were embodied topoi.

So what do these eight embodied topoi look like? They take the shape of cultural virtues and encourage meditation on the kinds of behavior best exemplify such virtues. My research analyzed seven different taekwondo textbooks from 1975-2016 to better understand how these principles of palgwe were described, how they were connected to specific physical techniques, and how the performance of those techniques were connected to social action. For example, form 1 embodies the keon principle, which is described as being represented by Heaven or light, Keon is the ultimate creative force and is often described as such. However, the keon principle is rarely connected to specific techniques and sometimes only implicitly to social action. The Ri principle in form 3, however, is symbolized by fire and represents spontaneity and variety. This principle is usually connected directly to the physical techniques in form 3 (as it demands multiple combination movements and changes in rhythm from practitioners), but less often connected to social action. Something like the jin principle in form four, though, is almost always connected to social action as seen explicitly in the quote below: “The practice of this form should help one act calmly and bravely in the face of loud and terrifying dangers, real or imagined, knowing that they, too, shall pass.”

Ultimately my findings showed that all manuals described these principles (most of them explicitly) and many made connections between these principles and social actions like being flexible in turbulent situations, remaining confident in the face of danger, or being receptive to new knowledge. The biggest gap that I found was in the number of manuals to describe connections between principles and specific techniques. For example, form 6 embodies water and the concept of adaptability. As such, it is the only one of the eight where the practitioner appears to move in a curved arc instead of a straight line. This is explicitly described in some textbooks and helps the reader understand that they're body is being disciplined to behave according to the virtue associated with the form.

Table 9: Numbers of Major Rhetorical Features in All Descriptions

So, why does any of this matter in the context of writing studies? Well, first, I want to demonstrate just how similar some of the outcomes for the taegeuk pumsae are to the “eight habits of mind” the council of writing program administrators named in 2011 as integral to college success. Some of them, like “creativity” and “engagement” share a fairly neat 1:1 relationship. Most all of them have a pretty clear counterpart. So it’s fair to conclude that the goal of teaching the eight principles embodied in the taegeuk pumsae is one that writing instructors may also share for their students. What I’ve learned in my research, however, is that it’s much more likely for a student to embody these principles if they understand a direct relationship between physical technique and underlying philosophy. So, for example, if writing instructors were to build in ways for students to embody concepts “creativity,” “engagement,” and “persistence” through specific exercises, the goals of these exercises and their purpose should be made explicit to the students. Repeated low-stakes, writing prompts could work toward cultivating these habits of mind and are made more effective if they are clearly labeled. Here’s one example:

Curiosity practice: give students a subject to start with. It could be a new concept or an idea from the last class that you'd like to revisit. Students must write six questions about that concept. Each question must start with a different one of the following words: who, what, when, where, why, how.

Of course, the more interactive you can make these, the more success they will have long-term. For example, having students come up to the board and write some of their questions under corresponding who/what/when/where/how/why columns before discussing the concept as a class.

These eight principles aren’t just useful for thinking through how you might design exercises and activities for your students, they can help instructors develop better pedagogical habit practices as well. If you’d like a fully downloadable list of sample prompts for students as well as instructors, check out the corresponding blog post that goes along with this presentation at

I’m happy to talk more about these ideas in the q&a or over email so please feel free to contact me. Thank you very much for your time!

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